Jounen Kwéyòl: celebrating the St Lucian creole

Laura Dowrich-Phillips travels to St Lucia for Jounen Kwéyòl, an annual celebration of Creole culture

  • St Lucia's largest village, Choiseul, in the distance. Photograph by Laura Dowrich-Phillips
  • A woman demonstrates how to make farine from cassava. Photograph by Laura Dowrich-Phillips
  • A man in Choiseul makes furniture. Photograph by Laura Dowrich-Phillips
  • A man demonstrates the art of long sawing in Babonneau. Photograph by Laura Dowrich-Phillips

Jounen Kwéyòl is the biggest festival in St Lucia, apart from the island’s annual jazz festival. But, landing at the GFL Charles airport on the culminating day of the event in October, you’d never have guessed a major cultural affair was taking place all over the island. There were no posters, banners, pennants, fliers, not even a pamphlet to alert visitors to this celebration of St Lucia’s heritage, a sign that despite its local popularity, Jounen Kwéyòl (Creole Day) is yet to be embraced as a major tourism draw.

“It’s not officially recognised on the tourism calendar of events,” confirmed Kirby Allain, public relations officer for the St Lucia Tourist Board and my guide for the day.

There was no official recognition of the annual festival en route from the airport either. But as we drove further inland, towards the small village of Babonneau, signs of the creole festival were evident, particularly on the bodies of the villagers making their way to the centre of the activities.

Everyone, from elderly women to young children, was clad in the colourful plaid of madras cloth—shirts, skirts, hair ties, dresses, aprons, and even trendy shorts and halter tops.

“You couldn’t find that cloth in the stores today if you tried, it’s all sold out,” Allain said.

Near Babonneau, in the little village of  Desrameaux, villagers gathered in a large clearing down a muddy track where, under a makeshift bar, men sipped cold Piton beer, a local brew, and played dominoes. Under a canvas canopy, a handful of men danced to creole songs blasted by a DJ. In an adjacent smoky food hut, women took turns demonstrating the traditional methods of making farine (cassava flour), while others served crayfish, green fig and dumpling in red-bean bouillon, saltfish and cucumber, fish broth, and other soups in calabash bowls.

Further down the track, young boys burst bamboo, thrusting kerosene-soaked rags and sticks into hollowed-out bamboo cannons with deft precision, unsupervised, while on the opposite end, elderly men demonstrated long sawing—cutting timber using a giant hand-held saw—as their colleagues urged them on with drums and other percussion instruments.

“This is how we used to cut planks to build houses,” explained Don, one of the men, who recalled going out with his father as a young boy to cut wood this way. The laborious woodcutting process, he said, kept men fit and strong in the old days.

Jounen Kwéyòl is the culmination of a month of activities during which creole culture is celebrated in countries that still maintain a strong creole identity.

“It has grown to be the biggest single event in St Lucia in terms of mass participation. It has grown tremendously from when we started, it’s like there was a cultural hunger in the nation that we uncovered: there’s a lot more attention to things cultural, a lot more consciousness,” said Kennedy “Boots” Samuel, executive director of the Folk Research Centre (FRC), a non-governmental organisation that co-ordinates the national and community activities related to Jounen Kwéyòl.

The development of the festival is really the story of St Lucia’s acceptance of its heritage, particularly its Kwéyòl language, for which all accolades must be given to the FRC.

Established in 1973, the FRC was born out of the Black Power movement that swept the Caribbean in the 1970s.

“It was started by a Catholic priest, Monsignor Patrick Anthony, and a group of young radical students with the intention of discovering more about ourselves and our people,” explained Samuel.

The FRC’s mission, he said, is to research St Lucia’s culture, disseminate information, and ensure the cultural heritage of the land feeds into the island’s developmental plans. One of the FRC’s main programmes is language development, and it is through the organisation’s promotion of the Kwéyòl language that Jounen Kwéyòl has become a national affair.

The most noticeable feature of St Lucians is their bilingualism. As well as English, the majority of St Lucians speak Kwéyòl, influenced greatly by the French, who held a stake in the island from the 1600s until France permanently ceded it to the British in the 1800s. A typical Lucian greeting is “Sa ka fèt?” or “How you doing? What’s happening?” and you can really feel like an outsider when that launches a whole Kwéyòl conversation.

Unlike the British, Samuels explained, the French developed communities in St Lucia, and their culture was adopted by the African slaves. French words became part of a hybrid African language really designed to protect their cultural traditions.

“The French would pick up a word or two and think the Africans were trying to talk like them, but it was their language disguised in French words.

“It is the story of creole culture across the region. It was Africans, with their own foundation of African heritage, taking in the influences of the Europeans and Amerindians…and so when it comes to the language, the particular creole language that developed would have been for the cultural survival of the Africans: they had to find ways to hide their culture. The African would take words from the dominant power. The structure, grammar and syntax came from the languages of West Africa.”

Though most of the original Kwéyòl language has been lost, Samuels said the language has evolved with pressures from contemporary music and culture. Even so, he said, there is more awareness and pride in the language today than in his childhood days, when speaking Kwéyòl was frowned upon. Today it is taught in St Lucian schools and is standardised with a writing system, alphabet and dictionary.

There are even radio shows broadcast entirely in Kwéyòl, something unheard of 20 years ago. Lawrence Adonis, host of one of those programmes on Radio Saint Lucia (RSL), praised the FRC for helping to revive the culture. Children, he said, were beaten for speaking Kwéyòl in the past.

Pride in the language has translated into pride in all past traditions. Wearing the madras cloth, for example, is a symbol of one’s creoleness, though few still wear the formal creole dress known as wób dyiyét (robe douillette), a patterned dress with a shawl worn over a white petticoat skirt. Some still wear the Jupe, a more informal traditional outfit consisting of a colourful madras skirt worn with a white embroidered blouse and a triangular piece of satin over the shoulder. The closest to the Jupe I saw in Babonneau was on a young girl who wore coral beads instead of the shawl and complemented her madras skirt with a matching madras handbag.

Then there are the dances, among them a folksy blend of African movements and ballroom dancing called kwadril, derived from the European quadrille, done to the accompaniment of the cuatro, banjo, shak shak and violin.

In St Lucia, the celebrations of Jounen Kwéyòl take place at the national and community level, with a parade, music festival and a pageant for women over 50, in which contestants demonstrate knowledge of creole culture, use of the language, national wear and creole related talent.

Four host communities are chosen each year and they start the day with a creole mass, stage indoor exhibitions, live outdoor exhibitions that demonstrate the sawing of wood, such as I witnessed in Babonneau, the making of shingles, farine, and other work traditions, and stage performances, as well as a food and drink fair.

In 2007, apart from Babonneau, the other host communities were Belle Vue, Vieux Fort; La Pointe, Choiseul; and Fond St Jacques, Soufriere, where live animal slaughtering, street parades with banjos, shak shaks and drums, and canoe races were held.

In Choiseul, St Lucia’s largest village, Jounen Kwéyòl celebrations are hailed as the best example of St Lucian culture. The biggest feature is the craft, which is made by traditional methods dating back to the Amerindians. Kathy Osman, a potter who lives in Choiseul, has been making clay coal pots of various sizes for 40 years. She makes them by hand, producing 12 a day if she has nothing else to do. The pots are sold to customers at home and St Vincent and Martinique.

Baskets, handbags, hats, mats, and wicker furniture—rocking chairs, love seats, tables—can all be bought in the village, which is the centre for arts and craft in St Lucia.

One of the main challenges facing Jounen Kwéyòl is funding. Samuels said despite promises, the government had not released any funds, and the private sector is yet to come on board. He agreed that maybe if it was considered a tourism product, similar to the Tobago Heritage Festival, which Jounen Kwéyòl closely resembles, more money might be pumped into the event.

“It’s a huge tourist attraction—without us compromising ourselves. It’s one of the youngest cultural festivals in St Lucia. We are doing it for ourselves—and the tourists will come and be a part of it.”

During her visit to St Lucia, Laura Dowrich-Phillips stayed at the Coco Palm Resort hotel in Rodney Bay

Funding provided by the 11th EDF Regional Private Sector Development Programme Direct Support Grants Programme.
The views expressed on this website are those of the the authors and do not reflect those of the Direct Support Grants Programme.